This is my sixth submission for the Everlark Week Prompt Challenge. Thank you so much to those of you who have read and reviewed my stories. It is so encouraging and means the world to me. I hope you enjoy this little one-shot too. Today's PoV: Delly :)
It pains me to see him like that, my best friend, turned into a dull shadow of himself, determinedly kneading the dough as if his whole life depended on it. It kills me to think that, in actual fact, any hope he may have for a sane life did depend on the progress he manages to make by going through the motions. His effort is heartbreaking, as he murmurs the steps and ingredients that he has known and replicated since childhood. His hands tremble ever so slightly as they hover mid-air while he second guesses something in his memory and hesitates in his movements. The skin under his eyes in tainted with purple circles and his face, so dear and familiar to me, is gaunt and pale. If it weren't for the fact that I have known him all my life, I would say that I am starting to forget what his smile looks like.
That isn't possible though. Peeta Mellark's smile has found its way too often in my dreams to be able to disappear from my memory any time in my lifetime.
He catches me staring at him from where I sit next to the counter in the kitchen. bare, stark and cold as everything else in the underground prison that is District 13. The Peeta of my childhood and early adolescence would have raised an eyebrow quizzically and grinned, not too surprised at catching me staring at him, but somehow apologetic for being the unwilling but still so grateful-and-sweet-about-it object of my affection. The Peeta that was returned to us following the Capitol administrations looks at me in suspicion and a spark of fear. My heart breaks.
"You should fight it, Peeta," I tell him, stopping myself from reaching for his hand. These past few weeks have taught me that it is still to early for unexpected and intrusive invasions of his personal space.
He frowns at me, and looks away in annoyance. "Not you too, Delly," he snarls.
"Yes, me too," I insist. I know I should be careful, but I decide to press him nonetheless. "This is not how your life should be, this is not what you have survived for. You have to fight what they did to you."
"What do you think I'm doing?" he mutters. "What do you think I've been doing ever since I've been here?"
"You bake, you avoid everyone except me, and you go back to your cell," I reply, shifting my head to try and catch his eye. "You go through the motions and survive. This is not a life worth surviving Capitol torture for. You know more than anyone else what, who¸ you fought for," I remind him softly.
As soon as the indirect reference to Katniss leaves my mouth, Peeta stiffens and twists around suddenly to glare at me, breathing heavily, his blue eyes cloudy. "Shut up, Delly," he warns. The guard standing next to the door makes a move towards him, but I raise my hand to keep him away. I'm not afraid of Peeta, how could I be? He would never hurt me. Unlike Katniss, I haven't been deemed essential enough to his life to turn me, in his memories, into a blood crazed mutt intent on eviscerating him. A lucky miscalculation from the Capitol, which I intend to use to my full advantage.
"They lied to you about her, Peeta. Whatever she did, she did it to protect you. Never to hurt you, you have to believe me!" My tone becomes quicker and more frantic, as I remind him of what he went through with Katniss in the Games, how they protected each other and emerged as Victors. I only stop when I see him slowly fading away from me. His gasps are accompanied by sobs, and he sinks to the ground, shaking his head and covering his ears.
"You're lying!" he screams. "The voices…she hates me – she killed my family…Naan! Barley!" His words fade into undecipherable mutterings and sobs. My heart breaks with him, but I keep my tears at bay until his guard drags him away to his cell. When I see the dough, lying on the counter, broken and fractured as the soul who kneaded it, I break down and weep for my lost love, my best friend.
Later that evening, I am told that Peeta has recovered from his episode in the kitchen, and will be allowed to choose whether to join us for dinner in the hall or not. I make my way to the usual table and am surprised to find Gale Hawthorne already there, frowning at his plate.
Oh right. Gale broods.
I'm not particularly pleased to share the table with him, but I'm still too polite for my own good to just move away, especially since, to my surprise, he gestures to the chair in front of him, inviting me to take a seat.
"How's Mellark?" he asks immediately.
"Which one? The hijacked one or one of those you left behind to die in District 12?" I snap. I wince when I see the guilt in his face. I had meant to provoke anger, and not sadness. There is enough of that around anyway. "Sorry," I whisper. "That was unfair, and untrue," I add.
He plays around with his food for a moment, before looking up again. "Peeta," he says slowly. "How is Peeta?"
"He has good and bad moments," I reply with a shrug. "I pushed him too hard this afternoon, but I'm not sorry for it. He needs to break through the damage they caused him. He deserves better than this," I explain, as I gesture helplessly.
Gale nods but says nothing. I don't think he can bring himself to agree with me on that point. He is stubborn enough to still refuse to see what I see about Peeta. I am similarly stubborn enough to refuse to see what is so special about Katniss. Gale and I are more similar that one would initially believe.
"I am you, you know," I tell him cryptically, and I can't help grinning at his surprised reaction. "I am to Peeta what you are to Katniss," I explain. "I'm the Gale of the Merchant Partnership. You're the Delly of the Seam Duo. Without the shiny hair," I finish with a grin.
Gale bites back a retort, and ponders on this point for a moment. "It's not fun is it?" he replies with a small smile.
I shake my head, but shrug. "It must have been harder for you I imagine," I answer. "Peeta has been pretty consistent and honest about his feelings for Katniss and for me since he was five years old. I just held on to the hope that he might change his mind. I did try very hard…even stole a kiss or two. But it was easy to realise that his mind was always on your side of town."
Gale says nothing for a moment. "During the Games, both Games, I was ready to give up you know," he confesses. "But now …" his voice trails off as he sees Katniss approaching our table, her step heavy and her shoulders slumped.
I lean towards him and stare at him seriously. "Winning like this doesn't count Hawthorne," I whisper quickly. "If she turns away from him now, it does no credit to either of you."
Gale does not have time to reply before Katniss reaches our table, and silently forces herself to eat from the metal tray. I notice that she refuses to take bread with her food. She knows that the bread is made by Peeta as part of his therapy.
Just as I am leaving the table, my heart leaps when I see Peeta slowly making his way to our table, his hands and ankles handcuffed, his curls unbrushed, and his eyes hooded in fatigue. He could, or should, have stayed in his cell tonight, but he is making the effort that few people can perhaps appreciate. My heart swells with pride at the strength of my friend.
Just as he reaches our table, Katniss looks up and he falters in his step, jostling the tray and accidentally dropping his knife on the floor. Katniss automatically reaches for it and picks it up, before stopping mid-air, staring at the knife in her hand with sudden panic. She looks at Peeta, who clenches his eyes and breathes. I stand up slowly next to her and slowly place a hand on her arm.
"Give the knife back to him," I coax her in a whisper. "Slowly."
Peeta opens his eyes, and looks at the knife in Katniss' hand, as she turns it slowly so that the handle is facing him, and very gently places it back on his tray.
The world stands still for a minute, until he hoarsely whispers "thank you".
"You're welcome," she replies, her voice shaking and her eyes glistening with unspoken emotions, before she drops her gaze and leaves the dining hall. I take Peeta's tray from him and help him sit down, before turning my gaze towards Gale.
"Just give up," I mouth.
I had underestimated Katniss Everdeen. And as Gale turns his face away from me, I realise that perhaps, so had he